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Donald Trump Has Brought On Countless Controversies In An Unlikely Campaign

When Donald Trump decided to run for president — after flirting with politics for many years, and gaining a following on the right for questioning President Obama's birthplace — the real estate developer and businessman from Queens was dismissed and laughed at by political observers. Many largely wrote the whole thing off as a publicity stunt.

But Trump's astonishing rise to the Republican nomination was marked by an aura of invincibility unlike any politician in memory.

In the early days of the 2016 campaign, the case against Trump was bolstered by his penchant for making errors that seemed obviously fatal — until again and again, they were not.

The Anti-Politician

Trump's willingness to say whatever is on his mind aloud, on a national stage, has been either his Achilles heel or his superpower — depending largely on what phase of the campaign he's in.

Early on, he drew throngs of enthusiastic supporters to his rallies with his promise to "Make America Great Again." They were fed up, they said, with politicians on both the left and the right who they believed were greedy and self-absorbed — who had failed regular people for decades while enriching themselves. They expressed excitement about a politician who spoke like them and, many said, verbalized the things they'd been saying privately for years.

To many other Americans, those things felt like a return to an ugly time in American history: insults directed at Mexican immigrants, Muslims, women, and even Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee and a Vietnam War veteran who was held as a prisoner of war.

A Simple, Direct Message From The Start

Trump set the tone for his campaign from the moment he announced his candidacy for president, telling supporters gathered at Trump Tower in New York City that the country had become "a dumping ground for everybody else's problems."

Calling for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump singled out Mexican immigrants for criticism, saying that Mexico is not sending their "best" people across the border.

Donald Trump announces his candidacy for president at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York City.
Christopher Gregory / Getty Images
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Donald Trump announces his candidacy for president at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York City.

"They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people," Trump said, delivering a line that instantly came to exemplify his message and style — and signaled to many in the political and media establishments that he was going nowhere.

Trump even battled a marquee talent at the heart of conservative media — Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. During the first GOP primary debate in August 2015, Kelly asked Trump whether referring to women as "fat pigs," "dogs," and "slobs," as he had in the past, demonstrated the kind of temperament suitable for a president. Trump lashed out at Kelly the next day in an interview on CNN.

"You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her, wherever," Trump said, in a comment many interpreted as a reference to menstruation.

If going after the 2008 Republican nominee, who many primary voters said was too moderate, wouldn't doom Trump, surely the GOP base would be repelled by a candidate going to war with a Fox News star.

Not quite.

An Unstoppable Force?

Each time Trump made a shocking statement, many voters — which included, for months, evangelicals and other Republicans aligned with more traditional factions within their party — hoped his candidacy would be finished.

His campaign was marked by disorganization and repeated internal shake-ups, but none of that registered with his loyal supporters. Trump basked in that support, boasting at a rally in Iowa in January that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."

Donald Trump greets guests following a campaign rally in Madison, Ala., on Feb. 16, 2016.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Donald Trump greets guests following a campaign rally in Madison, Ala., on Feb. 16, 2016.

Trump's loss the next month in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gave hope to some Republicans that perhaps Trump was beginning to wane. But few GOP leaders were backing Cruz, a despised figure in Washington, and the party failed to coalesce around more popular establishment options like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Trumps'first big win came in New Hampshire — a state where Christie, a northeastern moderate, should have done well. Christie dropped out and soon became one of the first leading establishment Republicans to endorse Trump in February, saying he'd gotten to know the New Yorker and liked him. Trump later held a fundraiser to pay off Christie's campaign debt.


Many political observers argued Trump's popularity had a "ceiling" — that as the field thinned, he'd never be able to win over a large enough share of primary voters to claim the nomination. But he continued to win primary after primary.

Once Trump won one big primary, and then a few more, it set in for the GOP leadership: He was likely to become the nominee.

Trump's language and demeanor (including a feud with the pope) continued to prompt many establishment Republicans to refuse to support him, even as he closed in on the nomination. In early March, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney gave a speech calling on fellow Republicans to stop Trump, whom he described as a "phony" and a "fraud."

A coalition of #NeverTrump conservatives (who used the hashtag to coalesce on social media) vowed never to support him. By late March, several establishment Republicans, recognizing the realities of the delegate math, reluctantly endorsed Cruz. Conservatives in Wisconsin rallied around Cruz, helping him to win the Wisconsin primary.

Trump would win the majority of primaries — that was clear. Cruz's victory in Wisconsin gave a brief glimmer of hope to the Never Trump movement, who began preparing for the possibility of a contested convention if Trump fell short of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

But even before then, there was a moment that seemed to undercut the dire arguments against Trump in a matter of minutes. The remaining GOP candidates — Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — gathered on stage in Detroit for a debate on March 3, 2016. After weeks of arguing to voters that Trump would be disastrous — not just as the Republican nominee, but also as president — they were all asked if they would support the eventual nominee, even if it's Donald Trump. They all said yes.

Exactly two months later, it was only Trump.

Trump defeated his remaining opponents, Cruz and Kasich, on May 3 in the Indiana primary — a contest in a conservative Midwestern state where Cruz was hoping his appeal with evangelical voters would keep his campaign alive. In late May, Trump locked down enough delegate support to became the presumptive GOP nominee.

Carrying The Mantle

But soon, Trump was again drawing criticism from within his own party for questioning the ability of a federal judge of Mexican descent to fairly preside over a fraud lawsuit against his now-defunct real estate investment course known as Trump University. House Speaker Paul Ryan, just days after reluctantly endorsing Trump, called it "sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment."

On June 7, as the Republican primary season drew to a close, Trump made the rare move of reading a speech from a teleprompter, and made a promise to his party: "I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle and I will never, ever let you down."

Donald Trump enters the stage to introduce his wife Melania on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Donald Trump enters the stage to introduce his wife Melania on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Republican National Convention, an event that's normally meant to bring the party together, was marred by discord. The Never Trump movement made one last stand that devolved into a chaotic floor fight. Cruz was booed during his convention speech after telling Republicans to "vote their conscience" in November. No previous Republican nominees were present, except for former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the 1996 nominee.

Republicans moved toward unity in their opposition to Hillary Clinton.

Speaker after speaker outlined a type of indictment against Clinton. Christie identified himself as a former federal prosecutor and said, "I welcome the opportunity to hold Hillary Rodham Clinton accountable for her performance and her character."

The arena full of delegates, who he dubbed "a jury of her peers," lit up in a chant of "lock her up." It would set the tone and establish a new motto for the rest of Trump's campaign.

Trump delivered an ominous acceptance speech that largely focused on crime and terrorism. He closed with a pledge to supporters: "I am your voice."

The convention largely drew Republicans together, and Trump took a brief lead in the polls.

Missteps And Shakeups

It wasn't long after the convention, with many Republicans hoping for a more "presidential" nominee, before Trump once again let them down. The rest of the summer brought a series of missteps, including Trump's attacks on the family of a Muslim soldier who was killed while serving in Iraq after they appeared at the Democratic National Convention to denounce Trump.

As Trump faltered, his campaign endured another shake-up; campaign manager Paul Manafort — who himself had stepped up to lead the operation after Trump's top aide Corey Lewandowski was fired — resigned suddenly. In Manafort's place, Trump elevated pollster Kellyanne Conway, who'd been brought in mid-summer in an effort to appeal to women and moderate voters.

Donald Trump's first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski speaks on the phone at Trump Tower following the conclusion of primaries in northeastern states on April 26, 2016.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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Donald Trump's first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski speaks on the phone at Trump Tower following the conclusion of primaries in northeastern states on April 26, 2016.

Trump may have become the biggest force inside the GOP, but to actually win the presidency, he had no choice but to work with the party leadership. His campaign was lean and disorganized, lacking the structure necessary to be effective in the general election. He continued to lean heavily on the ground game organization set up by the Republican National Committee in the wake of Mitt Romney's loss in 2012. While many top elected Republicans, like Paul Ryan, kept Trump at arm's length, those who ran the party operation said they were all in.

By the end of the summer, Trump also brought in Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, known for his no-holds-barred approach to politics and his popularity among the alt-right.

Bannon's influence could be felt as Trump and his surrogates drew attention to conspiracy theories about Clinton's health — a line of attack that paid off when she collapsed at a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony due to what turned out to be pneumonia. In the weeks before the debates, Trump seemed to adopt some of Clinton's attacks on him, turning them back on her. Both questioned each other's temperament and fitness to serve.

By the time the first debate rolled around, Trump was in fighting mode — repeatedly interrupting Clinton on the stage at Hofstra University in New York. He also hinted at what would turn out to be a major theme of the rest of the campaign — that he was thinking of bringing up former President Bill Clinton's history of sexual misconduct. Trump said on stage that he "was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary," but thought better of it because the Clintons' daughter Chelsea was there.

In early October, a damning story surfaced in the form of a 2005 recording: during taping for the TV show Access Hollywood, Trump was recorded making lewd comments about women. He described a failed attempt to seduce a married woman, used vulgar terms to describe women's bodies, and bragged about groping and kissing women he's just met without their consent.

"I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait," Trump says in the recording. He goes on to say, "And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."

Over the tumultuous weekend that followed, Trump's campaign put out a statement calling the remarks "locker room talk" and apologizing "if anyone was offended," followed later by a longer apology in the form of a video statement from Trump. Dozens of leading Republicans called for Trump to step aside, and many more denounced his words.

Trump took that as a cue. "It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to," Trump tweeted ominously. He was a candidate ready to take on a siege.

At the second debate, Trump showed up with several women who accuse Bill Clinton of rape and sexual assault. The campaign was reportedly prevented from having the women confront the former president in the audience.

CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he'd ever actually done to women the things he described in the video. Trump reiterated his "locker room talk" statement, and changed the subject to fighting ISIS and Bill Clinton's sexual improprieties, before eventually telling Cooper that "no one has more respect for women than I do." Trump was asked if he ever touched women without consent and replied, "No, I have not."

Within days, Trump was facing a cascade of allegations from women who said he had, in fact, done those things. Trump, always the counter-puncher, denied them all and threatened to sue his accusers.

He kept the focus on Hillary Clinton's email scandal and questions about her family's foundation — issues that reinforced his narrative that his rival represented the failed and corrupt Washington establishment.

The Rigged System

In front of large and often angry crowds, Trump continued to lob attacks at the media and the political establishment. He even questioned the integrity of the electoral process and, in the final presidential debate, wouldn'tpromise to concede the election if he loses.

While Trump's claim of a rigged election is false and unusual, if not unprecedented, behavior for a major-party nominee, many of his supporters latched on to the idea, which resonated with their sense that an elite establishment was not looking out for their interests.

That frustration grew as polls showed the presidency falling out of reach for Trump, until FBI Director James Comey decided to tell Congress he was looking into newly discovered emails that may be related to the investigation of Clinton's private server — an investigation he'd said was complete last summer.

Trump seized on that news, refocusing attention on Clinton — and the core message of corruption and the need for change. Soon his disposition and poll numbers began to bounce back.

In the waning weeks of the campaign, a new slogan — "drain the swamp" — joined chants of "build the wall" and "lock her up" at Trump's rallies. With his calls to upend the political establishment, Trump tapped into a force that was wrenching inside the Republican Party since the rise of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party years before.

Once it took over, other Republicans faced a choice between Trump and Clinton, a candidate many of them truly despised. Much of the party's reluctant base eventually came around, after Trump promised to oppose abortion rights and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices — and Clinton's "scandalabra," as Kellyanne Conway put it, burned on.

That could be enough to get Trump into the White House. Trump's candidacy has emboldened many Americans with a belief that the country's leaders are incompetent and corrupt, people who resent being told their thoughts and words are not politically correct. They see the country changing, threats from abroad lurking and the economy in which they were promised comfort, even prosperity, transformed. That's what bonded them to the candidate making that promise — to make America great again.

As Trump addressed a rally in New Hampshire in the closing days of the campaign, he recognized a supporter who called out, "Are you ready?"

"I didn't need this, folks," Trump said. "But I love this country and we had to do this. Believe me, we had to do this. And I'm ready."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets the crowd on April 10, 2016 in Rochester, N.Y.
Brett Carlsen / Getty Images
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets the crowd on April 10, 2016 in Rochester, N.Y.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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